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Be Careful What You Wish For

The curse of getting what you want.

Lately I’ve been sharing some life lessons — things I’ve observed or experienced in a long career punctuated by joys, regrets, and plenty of learning opportunities. This is a follow-up to my blog about emotional intelligence and the moral is a bit counterintuitive. Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to your career is to get what you ask for. That’s because as soon as a supervisor gives in to your demand for a big title, big salary, and big clout among your peers,  they effectively put a target on your back. That target may look like a superhero cape, but it singles you out in a way that’s not always desirable.

Here’s how I’ve seen it play out. A gifted executive finds success by excelling in an esoteric area of the business — something risky and unknown, where others are reluctant or unable to go. Having proven their worth, they demand more money and authority to take it to the next level. And they succeed. They prove that they deserved the big raise and the unique job title.

So, where’s the problem?

When the superhero’s esoteric assignment is eventually complete, or has gone mainstream, they no longer fit in. While they were off slaying dragons, the company continued to change, adapt, and move forward in new directions. So when they start looking around for a team where they can contribute, supervisors balk at the big salary. They don’t see the individual; they see the flashy cape and sense of entitlement that goes with it. Often a lateral move can be arranged, served with a slice of humble pie. But when cost-cutting becomes a priority (and it usually does) the obvious cut is the person making the salary of two competent junior executives. It’s a no brainer. And that high-salary player finds themselves unemployed.

Now, you may be the kind of person who can parlay each big promotion into another gig with another company. Or you may be the kind of superhero who is comfortable establishing themselves as a consultant who chooses who they’ll work for and when. But that constant hustle to grab the next golden ring isn’t for everyone.

My advice is to be clear about what you want, what you are willing to do to get it, and what you will do after that. The superhero racket can be lucrative and fulfilling in the short term. If you can demand and get a big bump in salary, and you have a plan for what comes next, go for it. Just be sure to sock away some of that money, because you’ll need it later.

But if you value being part of a team, growing with a company, and earning your merit badges along the way, make that your sustainable career plan. Do the work, help people along the way, and the rewards will follow. You don’t need a cape to fly.

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